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Why German Wine?

Why German Wine? – A Practical Buying Guide
The below information is meant to be a quick and easy way to understand German wines. They are some of the most interesting and misunderstood wines on the market and are a secret among the inner sanctum of the wine world. Let us explore!
Isn’t all Riesling sweet?
“Riesling was once the world’s most respected and revered white grape variety. In the 1980’s, awash in a sea of cheap German wine – not even based on the Riesling grape – its wines suffered a downturn in popularity. More recently Riesling has undergone an extraordinary rebirth that has reestablished its status as one of the world’s great wines."
Freddy Price – Riesling Renaissance

This is the most common question that we get asked, and the simple answer is no.

In fact, German vintners work on an ascending scale of six levels of ripeness known as Qualitätswein mit Prädikat – QmP (quality wine with distinction) that is governed by German law. The sugar level (must weight) in the grapes at the time of harvest determines the level of ripeness of the wine. For all QmP wines, the sugar must come naturally from the grape (no sugar added) with strict governmental regulation over their quality. And while ripeness increases, dry wines are created by converting that sugar to alcohol, thereby increasing the body, composition and weight of the wine. What is left over after fermentation is the residual sugar (RS).

On the QmP scale, the first two harvests, the Kabinett and Spätlese, are typically dry or semi-dry and are unbelievable food pairing wines, because of the high acidity levels in the Riesling grape.

Unfortunately in the US market, very few high quality German wines (QmP) are available, because many craft quality German producers sell locally out of their cellars with some selling few wines outside of their region. Although many people believe that all German Rieslings are sweet, most Riesling made in Germany is actually dry.

According to a great number of Master Sommeliers, dry German Rieslings are arguably the most dynamic food pairing white wine on the planet. But tragically, the first experience that most have is with the infamous Liebfraumilch (Blue Nun and such), an oversweet, mass-produced, poorly made blend that usually isn't even made from Riesling.

However, Germany's reputation as a producer of sweet wine does not come out of nowhere. If an incredibly balanced sweeter style wine is what you are after, then you are in luck!

As one of the most diverse white wines in the world, Riesling is capable of achieving four more levels of ripeness on the QmP scale. They are sweeter in style ranging from Auslese to ethereal dessert wines such as Beerenauslese (BA), Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and Eiswein (Ice Wine). And even though these wines have a high level of ripeness and residual sugar, when produced properly, their corresponding acidity creates a remarkable mouthfeel and play of flavors.

Ageability is also ascending due to the increase in residual sugar and acidity, which act as natural preservatives. The best part is that the quality in the later harvests only gets better with time.

Here's how long you can age the different harvests of German Rieslings:

And if a low cost, good quality wine is what you are after, we carry a line of QbA Rieslings form $12-15 dollars that are far more interesting than any grocery store Riesling.

What makes German Rieslings the best?
“Classic German Riesling is incomparable. No other wine can offer in a single sip as much finesse, purity of fruit, intensity of flavor, and thrilling acidiity as a fine Riesling, yet it remains underrated. German Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) is even more underrated.”
Tom Stevenson – Sotherby’s Wine Encyclopedia

Germany has the most dynamic microclimate in the world for growing Riesling, which coincidentally is also very well suited for the thin skinned and finicky Pinot Noir grape. Germany also has a much longer ripening window due to its northernmost latitude for growing grapes (49 – 51 degrees latitude), allowing it to produce wonderfully high levels of both sugar and acidity. These are the two most important elements in any great wine and are an ideal compliment with food!

By law, high quality (QmP) wines must be produced naturally with no additives or chemicals to alter the flavor or alcohol level. And in addition to what the law requires, German vintners tend to be environmentally conscious with many practicing organic and biodynamic growing methods, which assure that the wines maintain a crystal clear integrity.

A German Riesling can have such charisma and charm that its length transcends ordinary and becomes extraordinary. We have had clients call us fifteen minutes after experiencing a well made late harvest to tell us they are still enjoying it!

What makes German wines so good for food pairing?
“The high acidity in German Rieslings coupled with their clean, pure flavors and the absence of obfuscating oak makes this the most exciting and versatile white wine when it comes to pairing with food.”
Karen MacNeil – The Wine Bible

As food evolves and we look for more interesting combinations of ethnic flavors, the intermingling of ingredients is ever present making wine pairing that much more important. Whether it is Pacific Rim, Euro inspired, nouveau American, South American or the spice of Asia, Riesling and Pinot Noir with their elegance and class have the wonderful ability to transcend many styles of cuisine. In its dry form Riesling serves as a perfect compliment to an array of foods, and in its sweet form it has the ability to wrap itself around the zesty foods of the world to enhance any dining experience.

For recommended food & wine pairings, visit our Food & Wine Pairing Page.

What do I need to know when selecting a German wine?

Selecting the right wine depends on a number of criteria, but most importantly your palate's preference. In addition to knowing what you normally like, you should also ask yourself when and how you will be drinking the wine. Are you having it with food, and if so, what kind of food.

Ask yourself the following:

Q: Do I want something dry, something semi-dry, something sweeter or a full fledged dessert wine?

A: German wines and specifically Riesling covers the board, but Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Silvaner and many other varieties tend to be predominantly dry or semi-dry. A well-known variety for sweet and dessert wines is the Huxelrebe grape. Because Riesling is such a dominant variety and can produce anything from a dry wine to a dessert wine, many German labels indicate the level of sweetness on the label.

At TFW, all our wines indicate sweetness in German and in English on the back label. Otherwise, look for words like trocken (dry), halbtrocken or feinherb (semi-dry) and mild or lieblich (sweet). Wines that come in a small bottle are dessert wines and sweet by nature. We are very proud to carry some wines from members of the Charta association. Unfortunately a hard find in the United States, Charta wines are always dry and designed to go great with food.

Q: Do I want something with a big mineral composition and stone fruit, pronounced acidity and fruit structure or subtle earthy undertones?

A: Depending upon the region and producer you select you will have a variety of choices. Germany is made up of 13 major producing regions with strict regulation over quality control. At TFW, we focus some of the three oldest and most important regions, the Mosel, the Rheingau and Rheinhessen. A good rule of thumb is the following:

  • The Mosel: Wines from the Mosel have a beautiful mineral composition due to the high levels of slate and shale that cover 180 mile stretch of river banks known for their huge arches and amphitheaters of southward facing slopes. In the dry and semi dry form, aromas of peach, melon and soft citrus are ever present. Typically Mosel wines have incredible length on the palate, are wonderfully crisp and finish with prickly zest of fresh sliced pear and apple. On the sweeter end, you will find honeydew, mango, papaya and fresh tropical fruits, while dessert wines are characterized by honey, caramel, raisin and pineapple.

    Our Estates: Weingut Blees Ferber, Weingut Thanisch & Sohn, Weingut Familie Rauen

  • The Rheingau: Wines from the Rheingau are world famous for their incredible acidic structure and pronounced fruit. In the Rheingau, the Taunus Mountains force the Rhine to change its course from east to west for 28 miles. This creates a perfect southward facing slope and an exceptionally long ripening window. In the dry form, the acidity will be pronounced and the essence of grapefruit, lemon / orange zest are ever present. The typical finish of a dry style Rheingau will be that of fresh sliced granny smith apples. In the semi dry form, the fruit structure tends to become white peach, tangerine and nectarine. The body is well balanced and the finish has great length and charm. In the sweeter style, you will have the typical tropical fruit aromas, honey, melons and in general great acidity.

    Our Estates: Weingut Barth (VDP), Weingut Hans Lang (VDP)

  • Rheinhessen: Wines from Rheinhessen are best known for the earthy, mineral composition found in the soil. Similar to that in Burgundy, the area is covered with loose sand, clay, marl and rocky terrain. The rootstock is able to draw on this earthy component and the wines in their dry form have a flinty mineral texture with brazen acidity. In their sweeter form, they tend to be juicy and tender. While the Rheingau and the Mosel produce mostly Riesling, Rheinhessen vintners tend to a more diverse portfolio of grapes. It is one of Germany’s premier sites for the production of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and now getting a lot of attention on the international stage.

    Our Estates: Weingut Gutzler (VDP), Weingut Wasem, Weingut Dr. Hinkel

Q: Am I looking for a wine with dinner? What kind of food will I have?

A: No matter where the wine comes from, the most important thing is finding the right wine for your palate and its intended use. We highly recommend the following German wine and food pairing chart to help you pick the right wine!

* For Recommended food & wine pairing, visit our Food & Wine Pairing Page.